Racial justice at work, from gestures to action

Across the UK, indeed the world, employers are waking up to the role society expects them to play in progressing race equality. Tweeted statements speaking out against the murder of George Floyd and police brutality in the U.S. were met with anger from ex-employees at their hypocrisy. Many business leaders are now asking how to go beyond supportive statements to become credibly anti-racist organisations.

In 2019, I was invited to chair King’s College London’s Race Equality charter submission. I said yes reluctantly, knowing how high the stakes are for staff and students and how hard it is to progress race equality in large, traditional organisations. I also knew the toll it would take on my own wellbeing but I said yes because I believed I could contribute to change.

This is the blog I wish I had read before. I’m hoping that for the many people who have been tapped on the shoulder or have decided to step in to take a lead on this agenda, that this might act as a roadmap to help shape your action.

 

What’s your starting point?

Many organisations wrongly start with the question, “Do we have a problem with race?” and then waste lots of time trying to prove the obvious. Instead, ask, “Are we doing all that we can to progress race equality as an organisation?” Anti-racism work is not merely the absence of explicit racism but the act of intentionally challenging systemic injustice.

 

Yes, data will provide evidence of the problem and help you identify where race inequality is manifesting but there will always be too much and not enough.

 

Data, Data, Data

Every Diversity & Inclusion specialist worth their salt will tell you that you need to start with data, what’s not often discussed is the ability of data to accelerate and slow down change. Yes, data will provide evidence of the problem and help you identify where race inequality is manifesting but there will always be too much and not enough.

Data paralyzes. Over my career, I have witnessed teams refuse to act on inequalities for years because they were continuing to gather data. Supporting your colleagues to recognise that you will never have enough data and to act on the information you do have is crucial to getting things done.

But there will also be too much. If your organisation has had the foresight to collect good people data, you will be able to see how racism manifests differently according to different ethnicities, gender, age and so on. However, with so much information, it can become increasingly difficult to interpret. Knowing when to dig deep and when to see the bigger picture will help you spot the patterns and trends because the data will not join the dots for itself.

 

Whether you are white or a person of colour, resist the tendency to become the single spokesperson, recognise your privilege and give space and platforms for others to share their own experiences because they will be different to your own.

 

… and stories

Often overlooked is the power of people’s stories. At universities, the testimony of students and staff has been critical in galvanising action. It is incredibly difficult to listen to how people are excluded, attacked and undermined and not be moved to action. Whether you are white or a person of colour, resist the tendency to become the single spokesperson, recognise your privilege and give space and platforms for others to share their own experiences because they will be different to your own.

What’s the motivation?

Why has your organisation decided the time is now to progress race equality? Be wary of leaders who are driven by reputation or even conscience alone. Neither driver provides sustainable motivation and neither will lead to making difficult decisions where the bottom line is concerned. Equity has to be written in the DNA of an organisation — in its strategy, core values and in its KPIs in order to create genuine and lasting change. In essence, your organisation must believe that race inclusion is best for business for it to continue doing the work once the fire dies down.

 

Roadmap for change

Just as there are individuals who want to take years to gather data, there are others who want change to happen yesterday. I am the latter, but to avoid working in a reactionary manner and spending more time planning events then real change, tactical planning is necessary. When working on a theory of change, be narrower in your focus than you would like and more ambitious than you are comfortable with. The Black Lives Matter campaign to defund the police is an excellent example of this.

 

BAME staff being expected to do race equity work in their spare time on a shoestring budget is a perennial problem.

 

Build your army

You have probably already got a group of people around you who want to make change happen. Racial justice is not the work of leaders but movements. Martin Luther King, Olive Morris — all individuals part of a much larger movement.

A little stakeholder mapping using your theory of change will tell you the key individuals who you need on board. From my own experience, some of the key individuals are the ones who will rubberstamp your strategy, provide data analysis, provide some cash for you to take action and release staff to work on race equity.

One of the most challenging aspects of creating an inclusive workplace is culture change. Even if you have relatively diverse staff, people of colour will not stay or progress if the culture is not fully inclusive. In large hierarchal organisations, one of the most important groups to get on board is line managers, as the saying goes, employees don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. Line managers will decide who is recruited, what their daily experience is like, who progresses and eventually, who goes.

 

Books on race on my shelf, Syreeta Allen

 

Inevitably, people of colour often carry the burden of this work. BAME staff being expected to do race equity work in their spare time on a shoestring budget is a perennial problem. It is essential that the efforts of employees are acknowledged, both in terms of time and reward. Make sure your employer understands Race Equity needs the same resource as any other large strategic change management project critical to the health of your business.

Once you have people on board, don’t take for granted that people will be on the same page. People will have all sorts of ideas, fears and hopes about racial justice. Supporting people to access material to educate themselves on race and providing spaces for them to discuss what they are learning is essential to normalising conversations about race in order to move forward.

 

…this can be as simple as changing meeting structures so that marginalised voices are heard, to as complex as changing how employees are selected for opportunities which lead to promotion.

Take (positive) action

I divide action into two categories, transforming the status quo and change acceleration. I subscribe to the belief that if you design to serve the most excluded in society, you will create inclusive systems, processes and products which serve the entire population much better. In practice, this can be as simple as changing meeting structures so that marginalised voices are heard, to as complex as changing how employees are selected for opportunities which lead to promotion. The power in this approach is that no matter where you sit in an organisation, you can influence this. However, this alone is not enough to correct for centuries of oppression and marginalisation.

Positive action, has been unpopular with white people and ethnic minorities unlike. People think it is unfair because they labour under the false impression of a meritocracy at work. However, when it comes to getting women on FTSE 100 boards or low-income kids into university, this is often met with less resistance. The reality is positive action works and is needed in order to accelerate change.

In the UK today, if you are not white, on average you earn around 10% less. The gap is even larger for particular ethnicities and when you intersect by gender and ethnicity. None of us can afford to hope and wait that things will improve with more ‘gentle’ measures.

 

Marathon, not a sprint

Finally, look after yourself. Yes, we are in a desperate place. And yes, race inequity too often means life or death as we have seen with George Floyd and Betty Mujinger. But knowing when to step up and when to step back will enable you to keep running the race and passing on what you have learnt to the next generation.